‘Everyone is a victim of hoodwinking.’

Born 1960, Changzhou, Jiangsu

Zhou Xiaohu is a great-nephew of Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic, who predicted when the artist was five: “This kid’s going to lead everyone astray.” As one of China’s best known and most prolific contemporary artists, Zhou Xiaohu specialises in confusion and surprise, making viewers question the evidence of their senses and their assumptions about “the facts”. Renown (2007) is his take on the news media, which he believes routinely and knowingly lead everyone astray. “I grew up with propaganda machines,” he says. “Whoever gets hold of the loudspeaker gets hold of the power to dictate thoughts.” So lifelike are the figures in this “press conference”—which include a talking 3D model of the artist—that people approaching the installation often stand back and stop talking themselves. Similarly, You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know (2013) plays characteristic tricks with reality and virtuality. Two smartly dressed, life-sized silicone businessmen, one speaking into a cell phone and the other shaking a menacing finger, face video-screen “mirrors” on which their reflections appear in painted animation. What they are saying with such intensity remains a mystery, since neither man utters a sound.In Even in Fear (2008), a giant weather balloon repeatedly inflates and deflates in a comment on the expansion of desire in a materialistic society—and the disappointment and doubt that inevitably follow. Eventually, the relentless overstretching bursts the balloon, whereupon it is replaced and the whole stressful cycle resumes. The Gooey Gentleman (2002) cleverly plays with the relationship between creator and creation, making a drawing animate the body that animated it.

Steppenwolf and America Likes Me (2012) are based on a 1974 performance piece by Joseph Beuys, in which the German artist, wrapped in felt and holding a shepherd’s crook so he resembled the Grim Reaper, shared a room for three days with a wild coyote. In Zhou Xiaohu’s versions, trompe l’oeil paintings and projected animations construct a multilayered “reality” in which the coyote appears to be moving around the Death figure. Inspired by the cavorting, hybrid figures in Hieronymus Bosch’s hallucinogenic c.1490–1505 vision of earthly pleasures and the torments of hell, Zhou Xiaohu worked with the famous Zhejiang Taishun Puppet Troupe to create eight marionettes representing characters from the medieval painting. In bleak post-industrial locales – a dam, an abandoned mine and a power station – the puppets act out fables from the Daoist philosopher, Zhuangzi. They prance and dance across a dystopian landscape in a dreamlike journey that recalls other Chinese mythological tales such as the ‘Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea’. In all his work Zhou Xiaohu examines real and imaginary worlds. His playful approach belies his seriousness of purpose.

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